Dopefish Reviews XIII

Like most people who were excited about the XIII remake, I do not actually exist.

By that, I mean that despite being a huge fan of XIII, I can’t remember if I actually knew that a remake of it was coming out. I think I may have seen a story about it at some point, but it was definitely sort of a pipe dream, like one of those books where someone has officially bought the rights to make it into a film, but you haven’t heard anything about it in years and it’s almost certainly never coming out, which is a shame, because Contest by Matthew Reilly was a really fun thrill ride of a story and I think it would translate well to the big screen.

The point is, despite XIII being one of my – no, scratch that – my favourite first-person shooter game as of this moment, I had no idea that a remake had been released in November 2020, and that’s a real shame, because 2020 was already bad enough without me missing out on one of the few good things to come from it. And XIII is a game that could use a remake; it was a solid, fun, well-plotted game that didn’t get a huge amount of attention when it came out. So when I found out that I had missed its debut by a month, I was pretty disappointed to have missed the opportunity to relive the glory days, add my two cents to the discussions and really enjoy the experience of… uh…

Oh.

Oh no.

… So, I’ve seen a few videos of the remake, and I can confirm that it is indeed terrible. If I had been excited for this release, I imagine I would have been devastated by just how incredibly badly it was put together. I understand that this is the kind of thing that is often said in exaggeration from people who are upset about remakes, but it is not hyperbolic at all to state that the initial game, released in November 2003, runs better than the remake. I’ve seen footage of an enemy in the game trying to shoot the protagonist from a few feet away with an assault rifle, and the majority of their shots miss. Those that hit – roughly one shot out of every thirty bullets in a magazine – deal scratch damage of approximately 4% of your total health. Then the protagonist punched them in the head twice and they died; but not before letting out a hilariously melodramatic death wail that I imagine was only supposed to play when they were shot with a heavier weapon, rather than being lightly tapped in the face by the knuckles of David Duchovny, who only voices the protagonist in the remake because he voiced them in the original and they just reused all of his lines.

So it’s a bad game – a very bad game – and while I would love to dissect it for you all… well, firstly, I’ve already watched about five different YouTube reviews that have that topic well and truly covered, and secondly, I’d have to actually buy and play the remake in full, which is currently £34.99. So rather than discussing what makes the remake so bad, I’d like to talk instead about why the original game was so good, and why an honestly subpar-looking game with a moderately confusing story, released to little fanfare in 2003, still ranks so highly amongst my favourite games in the genre. Also, just for the record, it’s currently selling on Steam under the name ‘XIII – Classic’ for just £4.99.

RollerCoaster Tycoon Deluxe is still only £4.79 though.

1) A strong emphasis on story.

Actually, y’know what, let me rephrase that real quick.

1) XIII actually has a story.

I don’t want this to sound like a cheap backhanded compliment, because I actually do think that the story in XIII is executed pretty well, but in order for me to explain why this is such a big deal, I need to make you aware of every other failed attempt to start playing first-person shooter games that I had made before finding my lucky number XIII.

I first played XIII in the late 2000s, long after it was released, but when I was still singing the praises of my beloved Nintendo GameCube. At the time, I had tried to play Call of Duty: Finest Hour, Call of Duty: The Other GameCube One, GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, Medal of Honor: Frontline, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, and Black on the PS2. I had not gotten further than the second level in any of these games. And the reason for that surprisingly isn’t that I had really high standards or that I demanded a more interesting plot in games than ‘It’s World War X, shoot the bad guys’, but for the more basic and embarrassing reason that… um, I really couldn’t get the hang of the controls.

Most of you who have had any experience with a first-person shooter are familiar with the standard control-scheme; one joystick – usually the one on the left – moves you around, forwards, backwards, and strafing left and right, and the second joystick is used to look around and change direction while moving. To my 16-20 year old brain (I’m sorry, I really can’t remember when I first played this) this was like being asked to solve a Rubik’s Cube underwater while blindfolded. Obviously, if I had ever played an FPS game for more than an hour, I would have gotten the hang of these controls and been able to enjoy the experience, but here’s the kicker; it wasn’t until I played XIII that I actually wanted to keep playing, because it was the only one that really has a story. Not a subversive, genre-defying story that has me on the edge of my seat every time, but compared to all of those other games, XIII is like finding Citizen Kane in a pile of Seltzer and Friedberg movies. I don’t know if that metaphor works because I have never seen Citizen Kane and don’t really plan to; it looks boring.

You know what’s not boring? How quickly XIII picks up the pace. Let me take you through the first five minutes or so; the introductory cutscene shows a man being given a tattoo in very suspicious and mood-lighty circumstances, intercut with the assassination of a political figure during a ticker tape parade. The head of the FBI argues with a military general voiced by Adam freakin’ West over how best to catch the killer, while a sinister and obviously evil bald man makes a call to someone assuring them that Number Thirteen will not be a problem for much longer. Cut back to the surgery, where the tattoo is finished, and it reads ‘XIII’.

Then the protagonist, voiced by David Duchovny (still pretty cool but not ‘holy shit it’s Adam West I gotta italicize this’ cool) wakes up on Brighton Beach (the one in Brooklyn, not the UK) with amnesia and is soon found by a lifeguard named Janet who helps him to a first aid station. On the way there, they see the unusual sight of a helicopter flying past, which brings back one of the protagonist’s recent memories; he was fulfilling a mission on a boat when he was spotted and had to flee, jumping off the side, taking several bullets in the process. After a happy little faint, you wake up in the first aid station where Janet asks how you’re feeling, and then if you’ve ever heard of ‘Winslow Bank’, because the only possession you had with you was the key to a safety deposit box there. Then people with guns show up, shoot Janet, and try to kill you too, so you take one out with a throwing knife and then steal his gun and start fighting back. This is all the first level of the game.

And I don’t want to spoil much else, because the whole point of this ramble is about how the first level engaged me enough that I wanted to know what happened next, so much so that I was willing to actually learn how to play a first-person shooter, but I do want to mention the beginning of the second level too, because after you escape Brighton Beach, you follow up your one and only lead by heading to Winslow Bank, where a cashier greets you “Mr Rowland? It’s been such a long time!” and escorts you to the entrance of a vault where you can privately recover your deposit. And then you open the box, which immediately activates a time-bomb with a delay of about a dozen seconds. And then this brings back another memory, in which it turns out that you were the one who placed the bomb here in the first place!

This all takes place in the first two levels. XIII has more than thirty levels. And while a number of them could be accurately described as ‘shoot X number of bad guys arranged for you in a formerly queue through a variety of snowy military bases, tropical military bases, and U.S. military bases’, the story always progresses at a steady enough pace to keep you engaged.

2) Did I mention that Adam West was in this game?

Yeah, Batman is in this. The real Batman; not Zack Snyder’s ‘The Batman Who Says Fuck’ Batman.

Honestly this is less about Adam West and more about the voice-acting and the excellent direction in the game. Adam West does a fantastic job as General Carrington, a cigar-chomping old man running an investigation into the recent assassination of a President. Eve, as in the rapper/actress/host of ‘The Talk’, plays Major Jones, another one of your only allies who has the perfect combination of loyalty and attitude. If there’s one thing Ronda Rousey taught us in Mortal Kombat 11, it’s that casting a celebrity to voice a character in your game doesn’t guarantee that they’re going to do a good job, but everyone in XIII is putting in a decent performance.

David Duchovny does a good job nailing the confusion, determination, and Bond one-liners that come to define the protagonist, but I also want to say that my favourite line of his is either intentionally terrible – in which case, it’s really good – or hilarious awful, in which case, it’s still really good. Late-ish in the game, when you’re being menaced by a helicopter, you find a rocket-launcher, at which point David says “This should maintain radio silence.” Not a great one-liner, but it’s made infinitely better by the fact that it sounds like David Duchovny is incredibly drunk and was woken up literally five seconds before the line was recorded, so it comes out as “This shoe mantan raddio surrlence.”

The real success of the voice-acting in XIII though, is the mook chatter that you encounter in practically every level. You know how in Splinter Cell games – the early ones, before they tried to make Sam Fisher a generic badass action-hero instead of the gruff but relatable stealth expert that we enjoyed – then the enemies would chat to each other, sometimes adding more detail to the setting, or revealing a little more information about important characters? And how sometimes, what they were saying wasn’t important at all, but it was a welcome bit of humour in an otherwise-serious situation? I still remember interrogating that guy in Chaos Theory who is unable to tell you any relevant information because he’s so excited to be captured by what he thinks is a ninja.

Well, XIII has a truckload of that; especially the kind of goofy humour that would be kicked straight out of any other modern military shooter for the crime of ruining the serious, self-important mood. If you take the stealthy route, you can always overhear some ridiculous conversations that either offer background on your current mission, or are just there for the sake of fun. When you infiltrate a military base early in the game, you can overhear two guards talking about how their boss, Colonel McCall, had a low-level grunt institutionalized at Plain Rock Mental Asylum just for calling him a pinhead, and halfway through the game, when you end up at Plain Rock yourself, you meet a clearly insane inmate in military uniform who alternates between broken crying and laughing “Pinhead, pinhead, McCall is a pinhead!” to himself, which is not only some nice foreshadowing/a call back, but also immediately lets you know that Colonel McCall is a bad boss with a short temper, and Plain Rock is definitely not a good place to be.

My favourite line in the game – yes, even more than “Thass shood merntern red DIO sarlaccs!” – is from when you infiltrate another camp much later, and while sneakily swimming into the base, you overhear two soldiers complaining about the new recruits that McCall has hired, and one of them says…

“These rookies think they’re goddamn John Rainbow!” He very, very clearly says John Rambo in the game, but because of, I’m assuming fear of legal repercussions for mentioning his name perhaps, then the dialogue box reads ‘John Rainbow’. I absolutely love this, because it implies that in the XIII Cinematic Universe, the Rambo series is actually the Rainbow series, which… amazing, 10/10, or that there’s just some guy named ‘John Rainbow’ they both know, and he is an unmitigated unstoppable action hero badass. If they ever make a sequel to this game, I want to see John Rainbow make another appearance. I am more invested in John Rainbow than I ever was in any of the protagonists in any other FPS game I’ve played.

John Rainbow should’ve been a DLC Character in Mortal Kombat 11. Oh, and I haven’t even gotten into the singing yet; you know what, let’s go to the next point.

3) It doesn’t take itself seriously at all

One thing I strongly appreciate about XIII is that it is a video game that never tries to deny that it is a video game. You know what I like about video games? Climactic boss fights with epic soundtracks. Both of those were extremely rare in modern military shooters, because they couldn’t co-exist with the realism of the setting, and while I don’t like that, I do at least understand it. In DOOM or Wolfenstein 3D then you were shooting demon hellspawn, or Hitler in a mech-suit, so you were already straying pretty far from the path of realism, but in a serious story, it doesn’t make sense to fight another human being who can remarkably take seventeen headshots from your revolver and only have lost around half of their health.

XIII went “Eh, screw it, boss fights are fun!” and included them anyway.

Likewise, while modern military shooters of the last decade or so have gotten more used to having soundtracks – often making use of real songs, like Sympathy for the Devil in Call of Duty: Black Ops or the use of Jimi Hendrix in Spec Ops: The Line – then in the early to mid-2000s, this wasn’t the case. Again, I understand why; any notable background music would have distracted from the gameplay, and music for dramatic plot twists wasn’t relevant when there basically wasn’t a plot.

Once again, XIII just went “Eh, screw it, let’s have a cool soundtrack!” and had a kickass medley of confrontational combat music, subtly sneaky stealth music, and a few really nice environmental tunes too. I still find myself humming the ‘Rooftops’ music, and I remember searching for hours trying to find the soundtrack to the final boss fight against [REDACTED] and not finding anything because all of the results were for this stupid game called Final Fantasy XIII that I’ve never heard of.

The choice not to focus so much on realism is also really useful when it comes to the varied arsenal of weapons. I remember being confused as all hell playing Black, and trying to figure out what the guns did based on their names, because every time I picked up a new one, its name was something like ‘STG-86753’, like one of the baby names that even Elon Musk thought was too pretentious and confusing. Do you know what the shotgun in XIII is called? It’s named ‘Shotgun’.

In keeping with the lack of seriousness, there’s also the alternative attack of certain weapons. Nearly every weapon has a regular attack and a secondary function. Some of these are obvious; the secondary function of the sniper rifle and crossbow is simply to zoom in, and the secondary function of the shotgun is to bash someone in the head with the butt of the stock, which I understand from one multiplayer game of Halo I played several years ago deals approximately one hundred times more damage than actually being shot with it. But the alternative attack for the rocket-launcher is my favourite, because it involves lowering the rocket-launcher, removing the explosive rocket from the chamber, and then swinging it like a club to bash the enemy over the head with it. Have I ever hit anyone with this attack? No. Am I glad it’s in the game? Extremely.

And then there’s the singing.

See, early on in the game, while escaping from the headquarters of the FBI (Mondays, am I right?) you overhear a news broadcast on the radio summing up the public understanding of the plot so far, and then it plays a two-minute song written and performed specifically for the game. Nobody knows the exact title, but the fan-name seems to be ‘You Can Fly’ based on one of the most prominent lyrics. It’s a nice little touch that the developers actually made a whole song, just for background use in a single scene, especially because the lyrics relate to amnesia and being on the run.

And then, in one of the absolute greatest unimportant but neat little touches I’ve ever seen in any video game, multiple characters you bump into will be singing this song to themselves, all the way through, in their own voices. Whether they’re a hospital receptionist named Brenda,

Or a low-level grunt named Doug,

Or just some random guy in a valley you escape through, who channels the spirit of Pavarotti with roughly 20% of the talent but 100% of the enthusiasm.

My favourite is definitely Doug – you know his name is Doug because if you let him finish, one of the other recruits will shout “Can it, Doug!” and he stumbles off-balance in shock – because he’s the most animated during his performance, and also because he’s so caught up in the moment that as long as you’re using a silenced weapon, you can kill everyone else in the camp without him noticing. If you have the chance, knock Doug out with a karate chop to the back of the head instead of a bullet. The world of XIII needs his voice.

Maybe one day he could appear on the soundtrack of a John Rainbow film.

4) A unique and interesting visual style

XIII, if you didn’t know, was based on a long-running Belgian series of espionage graphic novels that date back to 1984, so it’s no surprise that it incorporated lots of comic-like effects into presentation, but what genuinely does surprise me is just how thorough the designers were, and how well the game works as a result. This isn’t just like a half-hearted ‘biff’ sound effect showing up occasionally, they really went all-out making this look and feel like a playable comic book. Panels show up onscreen depicting important events or conversations as you traverse the levels – never in a manner that gets in the way, but just to keep you informed of what’s going on – and enemies often emit visual ‘TAP TAP TAP’ sounds when patrolling around, which is explained via in-game documents as the protagonist’s excellent hearing.

Lots of sound effects tend to jump out at the player, explosions make the screen rock, and in areas where stealth is required, you might receive a little icon and dramatic sting to let you know that a body has been found nearby.

I told you, when Doug gets into his performance, he just doesn’t notice the world around him. Good for you, Doug. Keep living that dream! Another of the visual effects that gets cited most frequently (and honestly, most-satisfyingly as well) is that if you ever land a headshot with a throwing knife or crossbow bolt, you get a little three-cell close-up action-replay, which is also pretty cool.

But XIII isn’t just an FPS game with some comic elements clumsily added in; it’s clear from how the game treats its source material that this was a game built from the ground-up to feel like a comic book. There is no single notable element in the game that doesn’t take its cues, at least partially, from the world of comic books, and the effort really shows. Even in the ‘plot recap’ page in the menu, everything is covered by means of gradually appearing panels recounting key events from the story so far, without going into too much detail on certain key elements of the plot, because they’re bound to have had a lasting impact on you anyway.

And helping to cover up for the game’s honestly not hugely-impressive graphical quality was the decision for XIII to use cel-shading. It’s clear from the start that this isn’t exactly The Wind Waker, but XIII has aged phenomenally compared to other games of the era, because the cel-shading and the stylized design make every environment pleasant to see, and even more pleasant to run through with a shotgun, blasting everything in sight, or crouch-walk through with a crossbow if you are so inclined. It might start to look a little janky and dated in some of the screenshots I’ve taken, but I assure you, the game is remarkably smooth to play through and enjoyable to look at.

5) The AI is surprisingly good

… Ok, so I understand that you may think I’m being sarcastic here, given that I’m using an image of an enemy soldier standing in front of the two previous soldiers I sniped with my crossbow, stupidly looking from side to side with a “Huh? Where bad man come from who make my friends take floor nap?” expression, but I’m being completely sincere when I say that the AI of the enemies in this game is notably good, and the above screenshot is actually a good example of why.

See, this might sound like a common feature in FPS games, but when I first played XIII, every other shooter I’d played had the same issue; there was no point in trying to be stealthy because the second someone spotted you, every single enemy in the area knew exactly where you were and would make a beeline straight to your position. I understand that a lot of the games I’m talking about weren’t even trying to be stealthy, but it was still annoying.

That’s why my passive-aggressive murderer brain just loves playing XIII when it’s one of the levels where there are open areas filled with enemies; because you can kill one of them, then hide away and laugh to yourself as you hear the alarmed “What the…?” from other enemies as they stumble across the body, realise that they are under attack, and do not immediately know where you are and start firing. They’ll be on high alert, and when they do see you, there will be much less hesitation in their response, but it doesn’t have that irritating issue where everyone within a five-mile radius immediately knows where you are the first time you’re spotted.

This is a wildly unsuitable comparison, but I actually played Resident Evil 4 for the first time around the same time I played XIII, and I distinctly remember thinking “Man, I wish the AI in Resident Evil 4 was as advanced as it is in XIII!” It doesn’t come up often, but in certain areas – like the beginning of Chapter 1-3 – you can snipe someone from afar, from a general direction where there are several paths you could retreat across, and it bugged me that potato-sack-chainsaw-man (I know his official name is ‘Dr. Salvador’, but I think my nickname is catchier, and also I doubt the legitimacy of his medical qualifications) and his band of merry men would immediately know exactly where I had fired from, and where I had disappeared to since.

Dopefish, I get what you’re trying to say, but are you implying that you were trying to play Resident Evil 4… stealthily? Isn’t that on you for approaching the gameplay in a completely inappropriate-“ whoops, looks like we’re all out of time, better wrap this article up now.

Conclusion

When I heard that the XIII remake was getting really negative reviews, I was upset that one of my favourite cult classics had been butchered by people who, it sounds like, didn’t really understand anything about what made the original so fun. It also sounds like they didn’t know how to code, or market their game, or come up with a more interesting introduction, since the introduction in the remake is literally just a new character model walking into a room and watching grainy footage of the old introduction, so… what was the point?

But as much as I love complaining, I wanted to focus on what I enjoyed about the original game, because it was genuinely a really pleasant surprise to see that so many of the people who were disappointed by the remake were upset because they had nothing but positive things to say about a game that I honestly thought flew under a lot of peoples’ radars. XIII was released in the same month as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Beyond Good & Evil, and I can’t even begin to pretend that it’s on the same level as both of those titles, quality-wise, but I thought it was destined to be overlooked in their favour, and I could not be more relieved to say I was wrong.

So the reason I wanted to make this a positive article about the original rather than another takedown of the subpar remake, is because that was genuinely my reaction when I saw the backlash. At first, disappointment that it had turned out badly, but when I saw how many people were complaining that they had done the legacy of XIII dirty, I was happy to know that I wasn’t alone in enjoying the game. So honestly, thank you to everyone who complained that this game didn’t live up to the original, because just knowing that there were so many other people who enjoyed the original, whether they played it when it first came out, or years later, like myself, has filled my rotten old heart with joy.

So thank you for reading, thank you if you enjoyed the original and thank you to Microids for publishing the awful remake that made everyone – wait wait wait, MICROIDS? The Still Life and Syberia people? They published this? How… did they even get into… what???

Oh man, I gotta play this!

-Dopefish

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